Home / General / “The problem with the police, in other words, is not that they have unions, but that they are police.”

“The problem with the police, in other words, is not that they have unions, but that they are police.”

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Sarah Jaffe has an excellent discussion of the relationship between police unions and the rest of the labor movement at Truthout. UAW Local 2865, which represents California graduate students, has pushed for the AFL-CIO to kick out the one police union that remains in the federation, the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA). This has received some attention and is worthy of more.

Jaffe makes a number of key points. First, as the quote I used for the title points out, busting police unions isn’t going to change police behavior at all. The problem is police culture. There’s no evidence that police without collective bargaining rights are going to be less obnoxious, less thuggish, and less brutal than police with collective bargaining rights. Patrick Lynch may be a terrible human being, but that he is the head of a police union is not the reason the NYPD kills black people. We’ve had too many comments at the blog here that have called for ending police unions. This does not solve any problem. It punitively hurts police officers without doing anything positive. Supporting collective bargaining means supporting it for all workers, not just the ones we like. And unions have to represent their workers no matter what they do. It’s part of what unions are, whether the UAW supporting a member busted for drugs on the job, the AFT providing representation for a teacher who has acted inappropriately with a student, or the FOP defending its murderous members. Unions exist to support worker power and to give members representation on the job. Like a defendant in a horrible murder, every union member deserves representation from their union when they are in trouble.

At the same time, is there any reason to believe that the police will ever show solidarity with other unions? No. And is there any reason to think they ever will? No. Jaffe interviews the noted labor historian Joshua Freeman here who states that the labor movement has always had a very tenuous relationship with police because those police have happily busted the heads of workers for a very long time. The only time police have ever shown any kind of interest in the rest of the labor movement is when the special carveouts politicians have so often given them in order to promote their own careers often build on the culture war have disappeared. Two examples of this are the 1919 Boston police strike that raised Calvin Coolidge to the national spotlight, which resulted from the wages and the repeal of John Kasich’s right to work bill in Ohio that did not have an exception for police unions like Scott Walker provided in Wisconsin.

So is there any reason for the AFL-CIO to provide any active support to police unions or not kick the IUPA out of the federation? No. It is more important for the AFL-CIO to build relationships with communities of color, many of whom could be potential union members or are already union members, than to ameliorate a racist international that supports police violence. The entire labor movement does not need to be under one tent and there are lots of labor organizations outside of the AFL-CIO. The federation has every right to police its own boundaries of acceptable behavior. It should take an anti-racist position and kick out internationals that hew to racism.

A more minor point that I’ll also note is that Freeman discusses how the police unions are a lot more democratic than most other unions, in part because they originated in 19th century fraternalist culture which still informs them today, and that the union leadership is legitimately representing the desires of the rank and file. This means two things. First, we can’t just blame Patrick Lynch for these problems. Second, unlike what a lot of labor reformers claim about union democracy, that it will create a more progressive labor movement and more progressive society, the evidence for it really isn’t there. Internal democracy might create a more activist and progressive labor movement at times, but there’s nothing in American history more democratic than white supremacy and you see that in how the police unions act toward communities of color today.

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